Rocket Lab "Return to Sender" launch (Source: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab successfully puts 30 satellites in orbit, recovers first stage

Last week, Rocket Lab successfully launched its 16th Electron mission, deploying 30 small satellites into orbit. The “Return to Sender” mission also marked the first time the company successfully completed a splashdown and recovery of the Electron’s first stage for the first time.

The ‘Return to Sender’ mission launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 at New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula on November 20, 2020, deploying satellites for TriSept, Swam Technologies, Unseenlabs, and the Auckland Programme for Space Systems at The University of Auckland.

“It’s a privilege to once again provide access to orbit for our returning customers Unseenlabs, Swarm Technologies, and TriSept, and to deploy a satellite for the University of Auckland for the very first time,” said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck. “Thank you to our incredible customers, and to the tireless team behind Electron who delivered mission success once again.”

Among the commercial firms onboard, Swarm Technologies deployed 12 of its 0.25U Internet of Things (IoT) satellites, bringing its constellation up to 36 satellites and “more than doubles” its previous network capacity.  Swarm says its next launch will occur onboard a SpaceX rideshare in January and will add another 36 satellites, putting it on track to deploy a constellation of 150 satellites by mid-2021.

RF geolocation company Unseenlabs put BRO-2 and BRO-3 satellites in orbit on the mission, part of its planned constellation between 20 to 25 satellites by 2025. Unseenlabs says it is the only company today that can “precisely” geolocate a satellite at sea with a single satellite.

Rocket Lab’s successful splashdown and recovery of the first stage of an Electron launch vehicle for the first time is a major milestone in the company’s effort to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites. The Electron first stage successfully re-entered the atmosphere from an altitude of around 80 kilometers and deployed a large main parachute for a splashdown.  A recovery team fished the stage out of the water and has transport it back to Rocket Lab’s production complex, where engineers are inspecting it to gather data that will inform future recovery missions. 

Recovery missions sometime in near future will use a helicopter to snatch the parachute in mid-air and fly the first stage directly to dry land, avoiding a dunk in corrosive sea water.   Rocket Lab wants to be able to reuse the Electron first stage to increase its launch rates.  The company is currently the only successful business in the small launch vehicle space but should encounter some competition in 2021 if one or more companies conduct first flights and transition out of R&D and into operational companies. Reusing the Electron first stage could enable to he company to lower costs and/or increase flight rates without having to build another production line for the rocket.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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